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The Austerity Olympics by Janie Hampton

Release date: 12th March, 2012
Publisher: Aurum Books

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The Austerity Olympics
By Janie Hampton
Aurum Books

Britain's 'Austerity Olympics' of 1948, the subject of this excellent and well-researched book, were, economically-speaking at least, in the sharpest contrast imaginable to this year's costly Games in east London.

The total cost of the 1948 Games was £732,000 (around £20m in today's money), while the organisers made a profit of £29,000, the current equivalent of £790,000. According to latest estimates, surely due another revision, the 2012 Games are likely to cost in excess of £10 billion, although one wonders whether they will prove any better?

This appears unlikely. Whereas profligacy has become the 2012 byword, the 1948 version operated on a shoestring.

Sixty years ago, food rationing was still in force across the land; the nation was on its uppers; organisers had to rely upon the goodwill of other countries and the indigenous population's 'make-do-and-mend' mentality. Timber had to be brought in (for free) from Sweden and Finland, while gymnastic equipment was borrowed from Switzerland. The dog track at Wembley stadium was converted into the main athletics circuit, with the adjacent ice rink becoming the Olympic pool.

As there were no floodlights at Wembley, the best discuss throw of the eventual decathlon champion, America's Robert Mathias, was 'lost' for half an hour as markers searched for it in the gloom. Later, the main javelin event was illuminated by car headlights. Competitors were not exactly pampered either; most were driven to and from events on red London buses with the majority housed in military camps or schools. They even had to bring their own towels.

Not surprisngly, neither the Germans nor Japanese were invited and the Russians boycotted them, yet London managed to stage perhaps the friendliest Games of the modern era.

The legendary Emil Zatopek declared that, "After all those dark days - the bombing, the killing, the starvation - the revival of the Olympics was as if the sun had come out...Suddenly there were no frontiers, no more barriers, just the people meeting together."

Zatopek, who claimed gold in the 10,000m and silver behind Gaston Reiff in the 5,000m three days later, trained in his army boots and by occasionally carrying his wife (an Olympic javelin thrower) on his back.

Apart from Zatopek, 30-year-old mother of two Fanny Blankers-Koen of Holland emerged as a genuine star. Known as "the flying housewife", the sprinter managed to win four gold medals; her victory in the 200m, run in mud and rain, remains the widest ever for this event.

Equally impressive was British weightlifter Jim Halliday. Not only had he survived Dunkirk, but had subsequently been captured by the Japanese, later emerging from the POW camp weighing less than five stone. Nevertheless, this astonishing man won a bronze medal in the lightweight class.
Halliday's bronze ensured the hosts finished 12th in the medal table, with the US clinching first place courtesy of their 38 golds. Places two to eleven were occupied by European nations - although this includes Turkey who finished seventh.

As the bill for 2012 continues to mount, anyone interested in what determination, collective enthusiasm and sheer bloody-mindedness (not cash) can do for sport should read this marvellous book, for it reveals precisely what the Olympics is (or should be) all about. How disappointing that such wonderful sporting and national spirit has virtually evaporated in the intervening six decades.

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